Remembering President Abraham Lincoln

Sunday is the 208th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

Born in 1809 in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky, Lincoln was a largely self-educated lawyer who served first in the Illinois House of Representatives and then in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1860, he was elected president of the United States. A few months later, Fort Sumter was attacked by the Confederates, and Lincoln became a wartime president.

Five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on behalf of the Confederate Army, Lincoln was shot and killed by a Confederate sympathizer. He was the first U.S. president to be assassinated; he had just been overwhelmingly re-elected.

While there were certainly those who celebrated his death, especially white Southerners, most people’s relief and joy over the war’s end quickly poured over into their grief. For decades after his death, it was common for people to hang an image of Honest Abe in their homes. The legacy of this mourning can still be seen in the La Crosse County Historical Society’s collections.

During the Civil War, La Crosse residents Capt. Wilson Colwell and his wife, Nannie, had an opportunity to visit the White House and meet Lincoln and his family. Colwell was the sixth mayor of La Crosse and a captain of Company B, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, also known as the Iron Brigade, during the Civil War. Company B, along with Capt. Colwell and his family, went to Washington to respond to Lincoln’s call as the first La Crosse contingent of volunteers to serve in the war.

Many years later, Colwell’s widow reminisced about her meeting with Lincoln in the La Crosse Tribune (Feb. 13, 1927). She described the president as a “tall, gaunt, awkward figure, yet lovable and big-hearted.”

This full-body portrait of Lincoln — in his customary suit, bow tie and top hat — captures the Lincoln that Nannie described. It is an etching, produced by an artist carving a design into a metal plate. The plate is then covered in ink and placed into a high-pressure press with a sheet of paper to produce an image.

The signature, “Schneider,” is that of Otto J. Schneider (1875-1946). Schneider is the creator of another, more famous portrait of Lincoln created from a photograph taken by Alexander Hesler. Written in pencil on the back of this print is “February 2, 1913,” possibly the date it was made. The original deed of gift identifies this as a rare Schneider etching. It was donated in 1974 by Mrs. James Polk, a member of the La Crosse Daughters of the American Revolution.

This is one of many portraits of Lincoln that memorialized the man who brought the nation through the bloodiest war in U.S. history. The full Abraham Lincoln collection at La Crosse County Historical Society can be viewed on the society’s website.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune.